The culprit: Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PlayStation 2)
I’d never played a Castlevania game before, but I’d heard plenty about them, so I thought I’d see for myself what the fuss was about. Lament of Innocence being chronologically the first episode in the series, that’s where I decided to start. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it (mostly) chronicles a century-spanning feud between one family, the Belmonts, and none other than Dracula (it even integrates Bram Stoker’s novel into its chronology). The gist, then, is killing vampires. With whips. Go figure.
Considering the subject matter, you may expect cheesiness. And you’d be right. As is fitting when dealing with vampires (*throws bricks at Twilight*), the games are steeped in gothic and baroque imagery, albeit with an anime twist. Expect looming castles filled with ominous statuary; rainy nights over dark forests; pale, virginal maidens who get abducted; demonic creatures and fiendish traps; hammy dialogue; long-limbed, sharp-featured virtuous heroes, and a (thankfully) non-sparkling Dracula waiting for them at the end. Although you have to wonder at the efficiency of it all…I mean, if Dracula keeps coming back, maybe they should take a hint and start using stakes instead of whips? Just saying.
Be that as it may, since Lament of Innocence deals with the origins of Dracula, he’s not actually the game’s main antagonist. That title goes to another vampire, rather ludicrously named Walter. Don’t know about you, but that says ‘dignified English butler’ rather than ‘bloodthirsty fiend’ to me. Anyway, the game takes place in 1094, and the hero is Leon Belmont, a blonde nobleman in a distinctly non-XIth century outfit, whose bride gets kidnapped by Jeeves. Obviously, he rushes to the rescue with help from an alchemist named Rinaldo who lives in a cabin near the vampire’s castle (read: he will be Leon’s go-to supplier throughout the game). It seems that Alfred gets a kick out of kidnapping brides and defeating the suitors who come to rescue them, and Rinaldo’s not exactly down with that.
Leon is fairly reactive and easy to control, and the game guides you through a tutorial sequence at the beginning to get acquainted with his moves. He can run, jump, double-jump (i.e. gain an extra boost in midair) and latch onto things with the magical whip given to him by Rinaldo. The whip is also his main weapon, and he can upgrade it by facing three optional bosses. There are several combos he can perform with it, all of which are automatically learned and helpfully listed in the menu. He also has access to several sub-weapons, such as an axe or a vial of holy water, of which he can equip one at a time (you do have opportunities to swap them, however). Sub-weapons can be used to perform special attacks, but consume energy, measured in hearts. These are sometimes dropped by enemies, but can also be found by breaking candle-stands. Sub-weapons can be further powered up by coloured orbs obtained after defeating the main storyline bosses, which lends a lot of variety to combat. Things tend to get a bit hairy when enemies attack in large groups, however, which isn’t helped by the fact that opening the menu in combat doesn’t pause the action and renders Leon unable to attack.
In terms of defence, Leon has a magical gauntlet, which can be used for guarding against attacks. Furthermore, if guarding against a special attack or performing a perfect guard (guarding at the last possible moment before an attack hits), Leon will recover MP. Unfortunately, this is the only way to do so, which can sometimes be aggravating. MP are used to power relics: various offensive or defensive magical objects (such as the Invincible Jar or the Crystal Skull) of which Leon can also only equip one at a time. A suit of armour and two accessories complete his outfit.
Apart from the engaging combat system, the game also does a good job in the setting department. Nestor’s castle is enormous. I mean, it’s the size of a town. The entrance lobby is a hub area, from which Leon can access various wings of the building. There are seven in total, each with its own general thematic, atmosphere and overdramatically pompous name. For example, the House of Sacred Remains looks like a sprawling cathedral, the Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab is a fiery forge, and the Ghostly Theatre looks like you’ve stumbled backstage at the opera, while the Garden Forgotten by Time is an overgrown ruin and the Dark Palace of Waterfalls is just a poetic name for the sewers. These five areas are available from the beginning, and clearing each one will earn Leon one of the aforementioned coloured orbs, which will light up a corresponding globe in the lobby. Once all have been lit, he will gain access to the Pagoda of the Misty Moon, which looks nothing like a pagoda, but leads up to the final confrontation with Jenkins. The seventh area is the Prison of Eternal Torture, containing a very difficult optional boss, if you’re eager for a challenge and an extra coloured orb. Although it’s definitely not for the squeamish. There’s just one problem: the only indication as to the order in which to explore these areas is a hint on where to go first, but after that, you’re on your own. Which means that you could pick wisely…or wander into the Dark Palace of Waterfalls and tear your hair out. It doesn’t help that each area features a locked door which usually leads to a nifty item, but requires a key found in a different part of the castle. That means backtracking through respawning enemies, which can get distinctly tedious, due to the sheer size of the areas and the developers’ inordinate love for all things corridor-y. That being said, there are some ways to ease the pain. First of all, save points (situated in small rooms marked in red on the map) will always replenish Leon’s HP. Secondly, Magical Tickets will whisk him off to Rinaldo’s shop from anywhere within the castle, while Memorial Tickets will take him back to the latest save point he used. Thirdly, he can use coloured Marker Stones to signal points of interest on the map.
The one indisputably successful aspect of this game is the music. Michiru Yamane’s score is simply fantastic, featuring beautiful, haunting melodies, such as the theme of the House of Sacred Remains (my personal favourite), with its slow buildup, the measured lilt of the Garden Forgotten by Time or the dramatic flair of the Ghostly Theatre. Even the more surprisingly rhythmical Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab works well with its environment. This is a great bonus for the game’s atmosphere, almost counterbalancing all the backtracking, and possibly what I enjoyed the most about it.
The game also makes an effort in the replayability sector. Once Leon is done showing Poole who’s boss–notably lambasting him with a ham of epic proportions (“I’ll defeat you AND the night!”)–you have several new options. You can play in Crazy mode, which will significantly raise the difficulty level. You can also play the Boss Rush mode, which strings all the game’s bosses together back-to-back, provided you’ve beaten them in the course of the storyline (this includes all optional bosses). You can start a new game with all of Leon’s skills learned, or, more interestingly, with a different protagonist. The first one available is Joachim, a vampire whom you may remember as a boss. He has a longstanding feud with Winston, and the story changes accordingly. There are a few crucial differences between him an Leon, namely that he uses magical swords which circle around him instead of a whip and can’t block enemy attacks. The lack of a whip also means that he can’t perform acrobatics, but the game accommodates him by introducing moving blocks instead. Joachim also can’t equip or carry any items (Rinaldo won’t deal with him, and anything he finds is consumed immediately), although he can collect stat upgrades. All in all, it makes the game distinctly more challenging, especially if you decide to take on the optional bosses.
Once you’ve cleared the game with Joachim, you’ll unlock another protagonist: Pumpkin, an…adorable little munchkin with a pumpkin for a head and giant sweets for hands. He has puny HP and MP, and his only sub-weapon is *gasp* a pumpkin, but boy, does he pack a wallop. Especially since he starts with the strongest whip in the game. In all other respects, he handles exactly as Leon did, which, amusingly, makes him the most powerful character of the three. As an added bonus, leave him idle for a while, and he’ll start humming Joachim’s theme tune.
All in all, this is a decent bit of entertainment. The storyline is nothing to write home about, the characters are cardboard cutouts, the voice acting is mediocre at best, the dialogue is cheesy as all hell, and Wilkins is a terrible name for a vampire. On the other hand, the combat system is entertaining, and while exploration does get repetitive, the lavish, gloomy gothic castle and its various musical pleasures do have definite style. I’ve noticed that Castlevania fans tend to snub this particular entry in the series, but while it’s far from being a masterpiece, it’s not a complete disaster either, as some may lead you to believe.